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S05E06

No, no, I’m not Amundsen either! I’m Ernest Shackelton!
So you weren’t first or second?
Actually… my team never made it at all.
Oh, great. Because films about massive losers who never achieve anything make such big hits!

We’re half-way closer to the finale and the show’s creative flailing has finally settled down into… whatever this is. Given that ‘this’ is sometimes clever, mostly charming and always unpredictable… and, not incidentally, has some kickass music… it’s possible to be very good indeed with that.

In this episode:

Song:  Alexander the Great — Ben as the original all-conquering hero decides his massive ego can only be expressed via the majesty of stadium rock. Featuring his all-star backup: Larry as Ptolemy on lyre, Jim as Hephaestion on bass, and Mat… on drums.

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Roman Dog (“The cuddly companion who puts the’ fur’ into multi-furpose!” “Um, the wart’s still there…?” “It’s a very small dog, mate.”)

Come Dine With Me — Georgian (“The Prince Regent’s guests have arrived and are ready to eat. Although King George III is having trouble parking his invisible kangaroo.” “Whoaaaa there, kangaroo! Down, boy!”)

Historical Grimefighters — Alexander Fleming’s lab, 1928 (“Extraordinary!” “Not really mate, that’s what happens when you go on holiday and leave your dirty dishes…”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Ernest Shackelton Project (“Ohhh… then you must be Amundsen, they guy who got there before Scott! …Apparently, he used dogs to pull the sledges.” “Were these talking dogs?” “Lady and the Tramp go skiing?! It’s a yes from me!”)

CD Set — Now That What Me Call Music! (Available at last from Neanderthal Records! Featuring the first-ever musical notes played on the first-ever instrument… “Including the ground-breaking Three Notes in Any Old Order… and the smash hit, Smash Hit!”)

HHTV Sport — Live from the Pirate Races, monk-riding event final (“Pirates are a twisted lot, they take particular pleasure in tormenting these religious men…” “Oop, and Brother Carlos has trod on a nail! There goes his vow of silence…”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

We Are Amused… Unfortunately — Queen Victoria’s theoretically solemn coronation hits some less-than-dignified notes in practice. (“I now pronounce you Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland… the Duke of Ancaster and the Duke of Cornwall.” “…Really?” “It’s what it says ‘ere…”)

Facial Feud — Meanwhile, Prince Albert’s moustaches are of course just unspeakably ridiculous–until they become the fashion after facial hair saves lives in the Crimea. No, really. (“Do I look like an idiot to you?!” “Um… little bit… around the lips…?”)

Rotten Romans

Chou d’Amour — Ancient medicine: how to become a revered, wise elder statesman and convinced that cabbage is the ultimate universal cure-all simoultaneously.

Groovy Greeks

Alexander the Great: The Board Game — Play it until no one will play it with you anymore! Why yes, it does come with multiple expansion packs, which Alex insisted be played one after another…after another… and another… (“Wait guys, don’t go home yet!” *unveils Conquest of Persia pack*  “Are you sure? I mean, it’s getting a bit late…?” “Yeah, maybe we should quit while it’s still fun?” “Well, I’m still having fun–and It’s. My. Game. *snif snif*“)

Savage Stone Age

Historical Springwatch — ‘Excitable wildlife enthusiasts’ explore the hidden lives of Pleistocene-era wildlife… mostly, the part where they get eaten by Pleistocene-era man.  (“Oi, you there! Did you never stop to think that people in the future might actually want to see giant panthers, giant sloths, even giant sabretooth tigers…” *grrrrrrrrrrrowllll* “…Er, actually you have my permission to kill this one, heh heh. Wait, where are you going?!”)

Putrid Pirates

Translating from the Pirate (is a Bad, Bad Idea) — Yes, the fabled buccaneer dialect involved more than just howling “Arrrrr!” every three seconds. No, learning that still doesn’t make your drunk self any less annoying on Talk Like a Pirate Day. (“Arrrrr! Paul, sew ‘is mouth up!” “Translation, please?” “… ‘sew-his-mouth-up’?” “…” “Well, ah…shiver my timbers. I think I’ve just filled my keel with bilge.”)

Field Notes:

  • Right, here we are then: the half-way mark. Only six more half-hours left to go, and… I’m finding myself increasingly OK with this, honestly.* (*Future Shoe: Yeah, yeah, hindsight’s 20/20. Just you wait until she has to revisit the finale song…)
  • …Sorry, did anyone else just feel a vaguely portentous temporal breeze? Hm. Anyway, thing is, nothing so far has happened to convince me that the cast–and their quite frankly exciting potential as a comedy troupe–weren’t the only things really worth salvaging from what’s become a very familiar story of failed redefinition. (Albeit the fact that it’s nearly two years later and you lot still haven’t elevated Howick into an adorably neurotic sidekick in a hit sitcom–at the very least–is doing bad things to my estimation of the British comedy scene, let me tell you.)
  • The one interesting corollary I’ve discovered on closer inspection is that the cast themselves–having already set Yonderland in motion–were very likely themselves deep into the Acceptance stage of grief. Further, that the rest of the creative team were probably also mostly uninterested in putting in the work that would’ve been required to either recapture the gleefully anarchistic HH vibe (by then being handled very competently by the stage shows anyway) or to transform the new, more quixotic sensibilities into something viable. The seemingly random giddiness of S5 becomes much more understandable–not to say pleasantly watchable–when you realise it very likely emanates straight from everyone’s huge relief at having finally admitted all this to themselves.
  • It certainly helps to explain the music, if nothing else. Yes, I may be saying that sheer what-the-hell giddiness was responsible for the decision to definitively anoint Willbond as a hard-rock legend, because c’mon, Willbond. Sure, there was William Wallace, but there was also the distinct possibility that that was the one day Starbucks accidentally served Ben the dark roast. Unless they were first about to dramatically unveil evidence that Alexander the Great was actually Glaswegian, I was sceptical.
  • And I was also, as you may have already guessed, completely wrong, and pleased I am to admit it. The revelation that Willbond the Prince of Pickup Truck Radio was totally not a fluke hit my delighted-amazement centres with a solidly satisfying thunk. And in all that extra ‘youthful’ eye makeup, yet. (Must admit, though, they managed to make him look much more convincingly… well, not youthful exactly. Much less likely to distract the audience with the attempt to make him look youthful, let’s leave it at that.) Anyway, well done, Benjamin. I feel that something valuable has been taught and received about cultural prejudices here, and you’ve got my support for a co-starring role in a Russell Crowe film anytime you need it.
  • The critical centres, meanwhile received more sort of a thud. Alex has a lot more hard, dry fact to get through in his song–also, not nearly as deserving of a finale-joke-worthy death–bogging it down somewhat in strict comparison with the savage abandon that was Wallace romping through the English corpses. On the other hand, the staging here totally represents a clear awesomeness upgrade on the Wallace video. As does the neat balance between authentic larger-than-life heroism and Tom Clancy-esque campiness that suddenly makes me realise I should’ve known Ben was capable of this all along.
  • The rest of the casting, however, not so much with the revelatory excitement. So that wasn’t Hephaestion Mat was playing in the previous sketch? They took him off guitar and Jim off drums, just to gratuitously switch that up? Ooookay, show, your call. And I can totally see where Mat’s ability to keep a straight face at key musical moments was valuable elsewhere. It’s just that… um… Jim’s your considered pick as the bestest buddy of the all-conquering world-bestriding legendary military genius for the ages, huh?  In that beard? No no, just a little ouchie on the suspension of disbelief there, nothing fatal, carry on.
  • So yes, this whole thing was very likely initially designed around a callback to That Thing Where Ben Sniffed Mat, and no, I’m not as appreciative of this as I probably should be, even given the inherent (splendid, if intentional) sly meta-wit involved in switching exquisite young Baynton out for cuddly bearded Howick. As discussed in the S01E04 entry I’m the one fan who wasn’t all that… excited… by the original follicular violation (if it wasn’t obvious by now, my Willbond feels tend to run in a very different, more *ahem* cultural direction). I did enjoy it a lot as an intriguing moment of real menace–sexual or otherwise–in the midst of silly comedy; which of course is the one aspect that’s utterly destroyed by turning it into a running gag.
  • On the other hand, they are still fully invested in the lively, multilayered parody typical of the board game sketches, so I was actually going along just fine with the whole thing right up until I had to watch Ben and Jim trying to hold it together long enough to re-enact The Snuffle-ening. Besides, as it turns out, all that over-the-top hissing I thought was merely Ben laurel-resting last series was actually entirely self-aware, and is growing on me accordingly.
  • On a related note, I think I’ve just realised why Shouty Man suddenly looks oddly flushed from some angles; evidently Jim had just come from this bit, and there wasn’t time to break out the fully industrial-strength orange remover. See, um, Baynton at least already has olive skin, makeup team I am now thinking may have been subbing for the regulars and lost their list of reminders first thing. Or maybe, to be fair, that’s the makeup for the dimly lit video being reused for economical reasons. Even so, you’d think “When it comes to fake tan and pleather armour, bright white lighting is so not your friend!” would’ve made it onto a warning poster or something at film production college. I dunno.
  • Or, OK, maybe everyone was just distracted by the darling doggie. Hi Tumblr, if you aren’t already totes ded from all teh kitteh adorablez, it’s time to meet Eric the mini-Dachshund puppy. The little guy is nominally the pet of line producer Caroline Norris but is clearly–and correctly–convinced the entire world must be at his feet, working the camera like a seasoned pro. He only fails to steal the show completely because he and the human are an even more perfect double act.
  • Howick having playtimes with the ickle bitty puppy, well, what I was saying last week about his coming with insulin trigger warnings? This here would be Defcon Level Five. Not to mention the plushie just found himself a cute animal companion for the deluxe edition, name and all.
  • That said, I must spare a hug for the writer on this particular SM bit for smartly playing the adorable off the pragmatic snarkiness until the whole ratchets back up onto a level of purely entertaining marketing satire Shouty hasn’t visited for some time now, apparently being too distracted by the tiaras and whatnot. Very satisfying indeed to have you back on target, Jim. Even if we’re likewise back insisting that WARTS BE HIDEOUS ABOMINATIONS THAT MUST INDUCE  SHAME IN ALL WHO SUFFER THEM, which trend has got me mildly concerned I must admit. Is this a localised phobia, or another cross-cultural thing? Did I miss a bit of the Saint George story, and it turns out the dragon had eczema?
  • …Oh hey, look, everybody, I made a clever segue! You know, because there’s Georges in the new Come Dine With Me, and… fine, I’ll just be over here in a corner with the rat, he’s having a great time. No, really. I don’t know what was holding him back until now, but hellloooo, S3-era standup-wannabe Rattus and–among many other things–your frankly hysterical fit of bishop-phobia. Did Eccleston ever fancy himself a Spitting Image-esque satirist? ‘Cos he’s just made a slam-dunk audition tape right there.
  • *ahem* Right, yes, still a responsible adult critic person, and–Awwww, Simon finally gets his shot at the beef tree and kangaroo gags–basically, at being George III again, outside the Prom. Now there’s a callback I can absolutely get behind.
  • However I am still here to critique, so must admit that creatively the whole Georgian CDWM is a wee bit lazy–as neatly encapsulated by the suddenly all matchy-matchy crazy royalty. The luxe blue velvet is a nice costuming upgrade, but there’s just no way in hell IV as lovingly established up to now would show up to dinner in the same fashion as Dad, or stay there if Dad showed up in the same fashion as him… and having now carefully thought same through, with appropriate mental images, I’m sort of sad that I’ll never get to see IV’s freakout scene for real.
  • Although… there is something genuinely clever, not to say even more heartwarming, in the way IV hands off all his dynasty’s born-to-rule boorishness to the steadily more inclusive future — in the form of an extra plate of curry, because of course. On the further subject of which, unnamed but actual actor of colour playing Dean Mahomed adds a welcome touch of novelty among, um, other things. Well, no, I didn’t really think they’d do Mat up in a turban this time, but… yeah.
  • Sublime costuming distractions are of course among the standard incidental pleasures of the Victorian sketches, and they’re all fully on the go in the latest glimpses of court life. Besides which, the return of Al Murray and his muttonchops (…roughly in that order), maintaining the likeability even if he is still a bit too over-excited from filming the Dickens video to bother actually getting into character or anything. Nice economical use of the guest star, there–actually, come to consider it, the convenient existence of those ‘chops are a nice plausible explanation for the existence of this whole bit.
  • Another good one: Ben turning hideously awkward exposition into a wince-worthy burn whilst wearing the uniform jacket from a road-show Nutcracker production. Really, the Willbondian mojo’s making quite the flamboyant comeback this episode. Besides which: silly-ass Larry smearing cake on himself. Yeah, totally worth it.
  • Other smile-making goodness: Simon’s ecclesiastical gravity, back where it belongs. Although, you know what, Lawry’s take would’ve probably worked even better here… *ahem* never mind, no sense looking a gift Farnabian cleric in the mouth. Especially one whose accent is apparently the result of one boring run-through too many. Also, welcome back Mat’s nigh-on-forgotten genius for falling down. And at the centre of it all there is Martha the marvellously petulant Young Victoria, accept no substitutes. She may do many variants of this same character elsewhere, but it in no way distracts from the sheer rightness of the original.
  • Speaking of Martha’s reliable line in haughtiness… and isn’t that a bullet point every actress would kill to have on their CV… anyway, so I was already dying at Simon in the fully-copied-off-a-classical-bust ‘do, and then he goes and presses a cabbage against his ‘noble’ brow while Ms Howe-Douglas watches in utter disbelief… well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much now, but damn you should’ve been there when I was watching it.
  • Oh, and incidentally, want irrevocable proof of that new niceness I’ve been rambling on about? They went through, like, three whole minutes of a cabbage-centric sketch and only made one little offhand smell reference at the end! No sound effects or anything! *is honestly awed*
  • On the other hand, the Stone Age musical stuff… nnnnggghhh not so much with the charming moment-ness. Yes, it’s more of a decent parody of a modern rocker and his groupie than it had any right to be, thank you once again Larry and Martha… it just feels like they could’ve used the concept more profitably as the basis for an actually sophisticated sketch. (Compare the equally slight base on which last series’ hilarious-in-all-possible-satirical-directions “domesticating wild dogs” bit rests, for instance.)
  • The Historical Grimefighters bit, contrariwise, started out with my not expecting very much at all and proceeded to explode into… well, not quite my newest Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever, because I did pinky-swear on the Royal Society. Man, though, if any aptly clever, endearingly snerky, smartly  multileveled HH parody could make me seriously rethink the validity of my childhood vowing rituals, working-class Simon yacking at wide-eyed Dr.Howick about proper sanitation when making world-shattering medical discoveries would totally be it.
  • The LoG, meanwhile, with the help of a really interesting historical character choice–which I would be saying even if I wasn’t relieved to finally figure out what that bizarre costume of Jim’s was for, out of all proportion to its actual significance–take one more hilariously witty, original step towards [spoiler alert] a fully amazing payoff to all the seemingly random world-building.
  • By contrast, I have a feeling I’d be enjoying the Springwatch bit (yes, up to and including that turtleneck) a whole lot more were I familliar with the parody target. Even so, I have found some solid grounds for objective  amusement: ‘Cave artist’s impression’, har har har. More importantly–do you lot really pronounce it “Slothes“? ‘Cos Mat, I was just about to congratulate you on for once managing to keep hold of your Northern accent at least 75% of the time, but that strikes me as just a tad much.
  • Check it, Ben gets back into the marquise wig–well, sort of–after all! And having Lord Posh (nope, I’m accepting no substitutes, lalalala can’t hear you!) get captured by pirates ends up being a whole lot more satisfying than just having a few stuffed cats chucked his way. Seriously,  this is a welcome original spin on the traditional pirate stuff, with the great benefit of Larry doing the translating, and in the process making the unusually subtle most of a rare turn as the straight man. Meanwhile, Pirate Simon now comes with bonus Robert “Quint” Shaw impression? Welp, that’s settled then, I can die content.
  • Especially since we’ve got Giles Terera back again! Hi Giles!–oh, so we’re also back to pretending he has no potential whatsoever except in a bare set behind an empty desk? Hmph. Well, I like his intro better than the following sketch, so there.
  • Not that it’s a bad sketch exactly, mind. In fact, it’s fascinating stuff, in which the unusually dark adult implications are handled with the usually unerring tact and discretion… the thing is, they’re also handled more-or-less completely straight, without the usual fig leaf of sweet-natured silliness. Yeah, sure, there’s lots of suave civilian Ben, and he’s paired with Jim, but for once I’m too uneasy to appreciate any of it. (I can, however, appreciate the second shot at vow of silence funny; now, guys, that wasn’t so hard, was it?) Overall it’s about as close to seriously age-inappropriate as the show ever veered, and call me a milquetoast, but I’m not sorry the experiment wasn’t repeated.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, just to repeat from S01E04, as a public service to potential fanfic readers everywhere: No, Alex the G.–aka Alexander III–though pretty darned good-looking (if apparently somewhat slighter) in real life, didn’t actually make a habit of sniffing his subordinates as a means of keeping them in line. Or if he did, it’s not likely anyone in ancient Greece thought it outre enough to record. Yeah, for the 312694th time, the Hellenic concept of love and/or sexuality: complicated. Very.
  • Alex did, however, drive his men nearly to mutiny with his ruthless insistence on constant campaigning. The whole world-bestriding accomplishment gets even more mind-boggling–from both ends–when you realise it only took like eight-or-so-years total. And it all started back when young Prince Alexander of Macedon(ia) was just a tiny proto-despot, getting lessons in world-bestriding–or at least, Ancient Greece-bestriding–from dad Philip II, who is not fully renowned for his conquering prowess today only because he passed most of it onto his son.
  • Also, he hired the one-and-only Aristotle to be the young prince’s personal tutor… meaning adult Alex would’ve gone into battle not only with a headful of advanced military strategies the likes of which the ancient world had never seen, but the firm conviction that men had more teeth than women. The bits covering philosophy and logical thinking, much more helpful.
  • At age twelve, Alex had already managed to tame the supposedly un-breakeable horse Bucephalus– which sounds like something out of a nineteenth-century Boy’s Own Paper but did apparently really happen… or, well, at least Alex owned a horse named Bucephalus who carried him into battle to the end of his master’s life, which is quite Black Beauty-esque enough to be going on with.
  • To complete the picture, dad was abruptly assassinated when son Alex was only 20; cue the world-bestriding. At least for a little while. Despite marrying twice in the course of his adventures, Alexander produced only the one son… and little Alex IV was assassinated not long into his co-rule with his uncle, Philip III. Who was also assassinated, and then there were these four generals (ohai, Ptolemy!) who after much bickering divvied the whole empire up among them, and yeah, the ancient Hellenic concept of loyalty, also complicated.
  • The episode’s other major Alexander, Dr. Fleming, not so much with the instantaneous heroics. Yes, the discovery of what would eventually become penicillin happened very much as shown here (save perhaps with fewer smartass janitorial staff hanging around)… the thing is, it didn’t magically zip from his lab straight into the arms of needy patients. Far from it. The ‘Accidental discovery’ subsection of Dr. F’s Wiki article is studded with interim frustrations like this:
  • Fleming published his discovery in 1929, in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, but little attention was paid to his article. Fleming continued his investigations, but found that cultivating penicillium was quite difficult, and that after having grown the mould, it was even more difficult to isolate the antibiotic agent. Fleming’s impression was that because of the problem of producing it in quantity, and because its action appeared to be rather slow, penicillin would not be important in treating infection.
  • So eventually, after a decade of this, Fleming still hadn’t managed to find a chemist interested in mass-producing the stuff–and if you take a look at his picture in the same article, this is clearly not a man whose hobbies included hopelessly pursuing pipe dreams. He finally gave up on the Quest for Penicillin entirely in 1940… only to have several other researchers pick it up, get the government funding needed to produce it in bulk, and hey presto, wonder drug of the century. Luckily, they were nice enough to share the Nobel Prize with Fleming, and he was in turn modest enough to give them most of the credit. The general public, on the other hand, knew a good story when they heard it, and the legend of Fleming the Accidental Founder of Modern Antibiotics was born.
  • Then there is Sake Dean Mahomed, who was not quite as much of an all-conquering hero, but you lot do indeed owe him a spare thought next time you pick up your nigh-ubiquitous takeout curry. Bengali by birth, Muslim by faith, a soldier, businessman and writer of travelogues and memoirs, this extraordinary character opened the Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810. According to this lovely Telegraph piece on Mahomed in particular and the British fascination with yummy spiciness in general: The Epicures Almanak of the day described [Mahomed’s restaurant] as a place “for the nobility and Gentry, where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection”.
  • Wowzers! Real Chilm tobacco! May I be the first to exclaim: Wheeeee. And indeed, rather sadly, it appears that this initial foray into fiery foodstuffs was well ahead of its time. By 1812, the restaurant had closed and a bankrupt Mahomed was forced to advertise as a valet… only to shortly thereafter see his career revive spectacularly along the lines Rattus describes: he [opened] special treatment baths in Brighton, where he became “shampoo surgeon” to the dandyish Prince of Wales, George IV, and then to William IV. He published another book, Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the use of Indian Medical Vapour Bath, in 1822, which became a bestseller. 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E03

You’re not going to bite my neck and suck the blood out, are you?
Ha ha! No, I am not vampire.
You’re not some crazed killer! Heh heh…
Mmm… well, I’m not vampire, anyway.

Wherein we settle into as close to the mainstream as this series will ever get with the solid help of some old friends… and one unexpected, completely effervescent arabesque of musical excellence.

In this episode:

Song: Charles Dickens — Mat as the great man of English literature relates the tumultuous relationship between his real life and fiction in the equally tumultuous style of the Smiths — complete with swinging gladioli. Also, the help of Jim and Larry plus special guest Al Murray.

Recurring sketches:

I [Heart] Cats Magazine — Everything the Egyptian cat lover needs to know! …And some things they probably didn’t. (“I can haz mummification?”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Robert the Bruce Project (“Nay, the spider thing never happened! It’s just a story people tell to explain why I never gave up…” “What if he got bitten by the spider, and turned into a superhero?” “Spider-Guy~!” “Spider-Guy II!” “Now we’re getting somewhere!”)

Come Dine With Me — Greek thinkers (Of course, including Diogenes… and Aristotle, serving up a “duck, a goose, an octopus and a swan!” “Sounds delicious…” “Oh, I’m not serving them, I’m just chopping them into bits to see how their bodies work. Hummus?”)

Bob Hale — The Mary, Queen of Scots Report (“Whoops, Darnley’s dead too–killed in a very weird explosion. The kind of “weird explosion” that also strangles you and dumps your body in the garden. Which, if we look at the Suspicious-Death-O-Meter–yup, highly suspicious.”)

Gross Designs — Vlad the Impaler (You know what the Ottomans will say when they see the bodies of 20,000 of my own people spiked on the border?” “You’re insane!” “Exactly!”)

Stupid Deaths — Ivan the Terrible (The most flamboyantly fearsome of all the great Russian emperors died… while playing chess. “Alright, laugh it up, Skeletor…” “So who won? Or was it a dead heat? Ha!” “…I once killed my jester, remember?”)

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

The Purr-fect Weapon — Persian general Cambyses uses the Egyptians’ feline fetish as inspiration for a clever, not to mention cuter, variant on a human shield… now he just has to convince his troops. (“Warriors! I present our ultimate weapon!*meow* “…Does it explode?”)

Shocking Scotland

A Bonnie Escape — Poor Prince Charlie: he may not have won Culloden, but a resourceful peasant woman is ready to ensure that his flight into exile will be truly fabulous. (“Can you imagine anything more humiliating, a man of royal blood having to skulk around the moors like… Right, apparently you can.”)

Savage Stone Age

Stone Age Invention No.28: Wearing Clothes (animated) — Amid the wails of disappointed fangirls, strictly cartoon cavemen explore the profits and perils of wearing furs.

Historical Top Gear — Next up on the parade of small innovations with world-changing consequences: the bit and bridle. “And next week, we’re going to have a look at how the boffins are getting on inventing the wheel… Well, that’s not gonna work, I mean, how are they going to fit it on the horses’ legs?”

Vile Victorians

Victorian Word Battles — Or, ‘Words We Get From the…’ goes way upscale: Charles Dickens -vs- Lewis Carroll to see who can make the most quixotic contributions to the English language.

Terrible Tudors

New! Francis Walsingham’s Royal Postal Service — Absolutely, positively, 100% not having your mail read by government spies since 1569. Really. (“Hold on, by denying we’re using spies, it’s pretty clear that we are using spies, isn’t it…”)

Field Notes:

  • So there’s an important corollary to the series progression thesis I elaborated upon last week… no, not that I’ve got far too much time on my hands, we’ve established that long since. To paraphrase Death, keep up mate, keep up.
  • The corollary I had in mind was the one where the music inevitably is one level of creative badassery up on everything else in its respective series. Essentially, they figured it out in the very first episode, and if the bulk of Series One was spent bumbling back along to that point, the subsequent series picked up the ball and never looked back. The sketches were all “Yay! Possibilities! Let’s see how this works, or maybe this!”; meanwhile the music videos are like “Yeah. Charles II as Eminem. Any questions?”
  • Which is why it was a bit of a disappointment to me that S4’s music actually slid sideways a bit. By then they knew what to do just a bit too well, if that makes any sense; found solidly amazing parody mashup concepts and then just… sort of… did a solidly amazing job with them. Some vital spark of gleeful innovation, the kind that had produced both George IV and Pachacuti, was missing…
  • …and then in S5 the sparks suddenly exploded all over the damn place. I’m not saying the results were uniformly wonderful, but they were all intensely watchable, if only to see what firework might go off next. It’s the closest I will ever come to mourning what might have been in S6.
  • This episode’s example in particular… right, what else is there to say after it got picked up by the Washington Post’s online Slate magazine, the LA Times and was retweeted by not only the usual scholarly types but American actor/musician Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Clearly, a universal chord of comedic imagination had been struck.
  • And at the centre of it is easily the finest thing Mat’s ever done for the show — the absolutely logical followup to Charles II and Darwin, combining the former’s exquisitely cheeky charm with the latter’s playful erudition… and, let us not forget, those gladioli. Neither Dickens or Smiths parodies are anything novel in and of themselves, so it’s entirely to the show’s credit that this piece fully sails above the standard to become… well, whatever it is Mat’s been becoming since he started this whole adventure in combining children’s comedy with adult clowning. Yes, up to and including the Muppet voice. And it is glorious.
  • Meanwhile, the rest of the production matches him note for sweetly smart note, building on what they learned with the Natural Selection video about showcasing the central Victorian jewel in an expertly flattering setting. Including, of all people, the guy whom Wiki tells me is best known for a game show called Compete for the Meat. I don’t know much about Al Murray, honestly, but hey, he’s clearly having a ball and he fits into the mutton-chop-intensive mileu perfectly. Besides, I like meat. Welcome aboard, Al.
  • So… yeah, there was also an episode, which will hereinafter be enshrined in HH lore as The One With the Cats. Specifically, they’re the best part of an altogether rather odd remake of the S3 ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch. Presumably the idea was that the itteh bitteh warrior kittehs would act as adorableness-themed wallpaper over the mismatched comedic seams.
  • This… well, I’m not saying it wasn’t a fairly productive strategy (having them be all black was a particularly nice touch). It’s just not quite enough to prevent me from noticing that basically all involved in this elite army–all, like, four of them–have kicked on the autopilot and taken a little vacation from being shrewd comedy veterans. Thus explaining the failure to realise that the whole ‘stick the skinny guy in armour and hope it’s funny when he yells’ thing in particular was never all that showstopping to begin with. I am also a trifle dubious about the armour itself, which looks a lot more like Calvin Klein’s fall collection with the belts swopped out.
  • In the end, all I can say is… thank heavens for good ol’ Rattus and the ‘moment to think about all those dead cats’! …No, really. I’d seriously been starting to worry he was losing his edge, especially after the J.K Rowling crack. We can get back to the awful puns anytime now, fuzzy little pal.
  • Luckily, everyone gets back on the comedy-veteran job ASAP, all nice and rested and with a pretty decent tan. Especially is this noticeable–both metaphorically and literally, come to think of it–in the Come Dine With Me bit, which this series has been shrewdly retooled to focus back on the foibles of the diners rather than their food, and thus become the ideal vehicle to reintroduce great characters from series past. The relief at–nay, sheer joy in–having such surefire stuff to put onscreen is palpable. I give them special props for recognizing that Pythagoras and his non-sequitur spirituality still had much comedy goodness left to give.
  • Also, Larry seems to have located his perfect Ringo impersonation again. Also also, Mat’s still got the beard and the vaguely unsettling air of having just blown in from a PSA on the dangers of speed. Somehow the fact that whatever Aristotle’s cutting up bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the animals the narrator mentions just makes me very happy. On the other hand, I think we can all agree that we have definitively wrung every last, erm, drop of comic potential from Diogenes’ austerity philosophy now, kthx. Yes, even for the twelve-year-old demographic. Sheez.
  • In other surefire recurring entertainment news: Yay, Bob Hale has finally sorted his meds and is back to his… well, at least mildly-manic self! (By contrast, Sam’s blouse… man, those ruffles just get more and more implausible, don’t they?) Really, a fully splendid recovery from last year’s tendency to rest on his catchphrase-laden laurels–not one catchphrase of which is uttered here, interestingly enough. I dunno where Larry went to get re-inspired, but it was a good place. You can tell right off, because the old-age makeup has gotten much less existentially terrifying. I suppose it was either that or equip the poor guy with a wheelchair and laser pointer, which– *aaaaghh* Bad brain! Stop that!
  • …Sorry, rapid-aging phobia kicked in there for a sec. But man, yes, time to admit I spent the off-season uneasily anticipating the Rickardian interpretation of senility as goofy comedy. Instead, we get a  classically bright, clever, notably accurate and and just generally one of the all-time great Bob Reports, wherein the inspired running gag is seamlessly kicked up notch-by-notch into an actual meta-satirical comment on the entire show’s attitude to history, and by extension, the entire discipline’s methods. Well done Bobsy, and even better done his creator.
  • Over at Stupid Deaths, by contrast, it’s becoming unfortunately clear that the re-inspiration wad may well have been shot with the ‘Boring Deaths’ business. Hang on, let me just go back and check… yep, that would in fact be ol’ Ivan the T’s signature among Death’s pre-existing collection of autographs from great villains of history, all the way back in S2’s Draco sketch… and yes, the fact that I not only remembered that but spent some time being miffed over having my newfound SD continuity summarily destroyed only an episode later is only the latest indication that I may need a vacation myself.
  • Still, it really is an awful shame that the potential for the callback wasn’t picked up. Just imagine how the fearsome Tartar Emperor, as envisioned by a production team who clearly needs to back off the Game of Thrones Netflix bingeing, would’ve reacted to that fluffy pink pen? Which is in fact rather inexplicably visible throughout this sketch? By contrast, the angle they did go with is so clunky that the whole thing winds up only being novel inasmuch as it proves that it is, in fact, possible for comic surrealism to not take flight in the vicinity of Farnaby’s performance tics.
  • Not that there aren’t still rewards inherent in Ben’s big chance to show off his Russian. I would be saying this anyway, out of sympathy for what appears to have been six hours straight in the makeup chair, but it is so regardless. Albeit it takes a couple viewings to appreciate, or frankly even realise there’s a Willbond in there, under those eyebrows. (Seriously. The “Uhhh… that is him, right?” reaction online when this bit first aired was priceless.) One of those creative decisions you feel like watching film of them being made–or, for that matter, executed–would be far more entertaining than the results.
  • On the other hand: Benjamin, you totally ad-libbed that ‘Skeletor’ line, didn’t you? If so, it’s the closest I may ever get to wanting to give you a great big hug.
  • Simon gets far better served on the nostalgia front in the Movie Pitch sketch–even if it does involve cheerfully tossing William Wallace the hard-rocking rebel legend under a bus without, apparently, much in the way of second thoughts at all. Interesting bit of insight into the show’s dedication to the facts, that.
  • Anyway, I have long been anxious to see how Farnaby’s full-on crazy bounces off the LoG’s be-suited smarminess … wonderfully as ever, as it turns out. It’s been far too long since he’s had the chance to thus let loose, also since the trio had a really worthy opponent, and the results are fully classic all the way ’round. Meantime, I continue to enjoy how the same trio are developing their own little world of Hollywood cluelessness; it still doesn’t have much to do with HH, but it’s a joy to watch regardless. Like, right in the middle of the historical stuff, the kiddies are being treated to an extra-credit clinic in comedy development. Complete with the face paint.
  • On the further subject of fascinating makeup decisions: For the first time, based solely on Mat’s look as host of the new ‘Gross Designs’ bit, I was motivated to look up the source material. And I was mightily pleased… well, not so much in that direction, although it’s a decent bonus, as that it’s a nice clever idea for a recurring concept with lots of potential. Sort of a more sophisticated take on the old ‘Location Location Location’ bits, which I also always liked.
  • OK, so it turns out to be kind of unnecessarily goofy in the execution. Simon’s evident idea of Eastern Europeans goes a long way towards explaining his later decision to sign on as presenter of Man Vs. Weird. (It’s more fun listening to him provide the mundane explanation of ‘Dracula’ in that pantomime accent than in the whole of his SD performance, though, must admit that.) Not to mention that the ‘impala’/’Impaler’ thing is officially the furthest the show’s ever reached for a joke, and this is a show that contains Death’s puns on a regular basis. But Mat’s comparatively subtle symphony of growing unease just about makes up for everything.
  • Except maybe why he’s not playing Bonnie Prince Charlie, thus breaking his frankly magnificent streak of sassy royal Stuart portrayals. I mean, if we’re going to play around with casting, why couldn’t that have been Lawry instead of Mat as the kitty-obsessed Persian general… no, wait, that actually wouldn’t’ve worked any better, would it… OK, how about Mat here, Ben as Cambyses over there and Lawry as the guy with the derpy sneeze? But that leaves Simon… ah, geez, now I’m all confused up in here.
  • Of course, the ridiculous over-the-top squeeky stuff at the beginning of his bit does suggest the doomed-but-Bonnie Prince was specially written with the whinge specialist in mind. I’ll also grant there’s a certain wit in using that same guy in a sketch that’s all about underlining the ultimate futility of Charlie’s regal ambitions; in particular, he plays the quoted line really well. Otherwise, this little interlude is notable mostly for underlining how good Martha really does look in blue… which you can tell, because it distracts from her Scots accent.
  • I am by contrast not at all sure how well the Historical Top Gear spoof was thought through, beyond the writers’ understandable need to change their pop-culture dartboard picture every now and then. Masterchef has run its course, and the Apprentice while loaded with other possibilities isn’t nearly as satisfying a mickey-taking outlet, so it’s obviously time to move on to… ‘Jeremy Clarkstone’ and ‘James Clay’? Ah, guys? Exactly when did this turn into the Flintstones?
  • …Fine, ‘Stone Age Stig’, that’s mildly amusing. Points also for the business at the end with the wheel, and indeed for James Clay’s asides throughout, primarily because ‘sophisticated’ Cave-Willbond being baffled by basic technology can never not be hilariously endearing.
  • But really guys, this experimental thing is getting a little out of hand. Mind, I do not wish to seem like I’m ready to jump on every role Lewin gets this series; I am just saying that after being confronted with this one I felt it necessary to immediately study pictures of the real-life Jeremy Clarkson with great care, not to say concern. And while I gather he’s something of a noted curmudgeon, there’s no indication whatsoever he’s an eldritch abomination drawing on the dark hearts of those 90’s troll dolls to return specifically to eat children’s souls. Somebody seriously needs to cut the makeup team’s Red Bull supply.
  • But not before I congratulate them on managing to make Mat look more like Dickens than anyone approximately thirty years younger has a right to. The ‘Word Battle’ thing with Ben as Lewis Carroll is another weirdly underthought sketch idea, but I do not care, because awwww. Somebody clearly just wanted to reignite the competitive spark in these two after the Greatest Composer thing at the Proms, and how do you argue with that?
  • Besides, they did a brilliant job of following through, or at least the performers did. The chemistry inherent in the creative tension–ie. Dickens’ obsessive need for moral justice and order vs. Carroll’s overt refusal to give a damn about anything but being clever–is even better matched than the original, and handled with subtly elegant intelligence by both men (never mind that in real life, the ebullient, verbose Dickens would’ve totally overwhelmed the shy, gauche, introverted Dodgson).
  • Honestly, Ben should by all rights not be this convincing as Carroll, but he is. Largely by focussing in on what popular imagination thinks the author of Jabberwocky must have been–edge of inspired lunacy and everything. Shades of what I’ve been complaining about missing from his signature characters lately, come to think of it. At any rate, “Personal recitation of Carroll’s poetry” just got added to my list of weirdly off-brand Willbond fantasies.
  • Jim meanwhile is a bit out of things in this episode full of magnificently outsized characters; he’s here only to be upstaged by a magnificently indifferent feline and to all-too-briefly recreate Francis Walsingham, one of his most intriguing roles exactly because one of the few–possibly only, come to think of it–that’s  not the universe’s go-to chew toy. Unfortunately this latter is stuck in another one of those little scraps of anecdote that never quite gets around to an actual punchline, or anything, but the sheer novelty of seeing Howick play so against type–and his almost offhanded skill in the execution regardless–makes it worth a  watch anyway.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Completely self-indulgent feline footnote and incidental proof that I do have a life, since I’m also in the middle of polishing up the domestic cat breed articles on Wiki… wait, that didn’t come out quite as intended… Anyway, that’s a very lovely blue-point Siamese being used in the magazine sketch. Which breed is a) not even close to originating in Egypt (as the name indicates, it’s native to Siam, ie. modern Thailand) and b) ironically enough is among the few breeds of cat that can be taught to fetch. Given enough owner patience, anyway.
  • I said above that this Bob Report is notably accurate, and I stand by that down here — because I’m exploiting a loophole that says the background goofiness doesn’t really count. Still, in this case it would’ve been nice had they got the right French King Francis; the animation here is clearly based off the famous portrait of Francis I, actually a contemporary of her Great-Uncle Henry VIII’s (devoted HH fans will remember him from S02E12 as the guy who tripped Henry up at the Field of Cloth of Gold).
  • Sadly, Mary’s Francis bore very little–make that ‘no’, actually–resemblance to his virile, handsome, cultured predecessor. The son of Henry II by Catherine de’Medici, Francis II, who ascended the throne at age fifteen after a freak jousting accident took out Dad, was a sickly,stunted kid who didn’t even have time to begin growing facial hair before dying ignominously of an ear infection at age sixteen… and let’s just say there were some seriously conflicting reports re: his potential for virility, too. It’s been suggested that this unsatisfactory early experience of marriage played a role in Mary’s later eagerness to get unwisely involved with unsuitable, but very virile, noblemen as Queen.
  • All of which ultimately led to the creation of Francis Walsingham’s postal service, ie. at least one cute little throwaway sketch that just got a whole lot more topical — though to be fair, Walsingham had a job lot more specific reasons for concern than the NSA. As Bobsy notes, the whole post office ruse was initially set up explicitly to foil Mary’s many attempts at rebellion by correspondence with the disaffected Catholics of the realm… and man, did it work brilliantly. Per Wiki:
  • Walsingham arranged a…  covert means for Mary’s letters to be smuggled in and out of Chartley [the castle in which she was being held] in a beer keg. Mary was misled into thinking these secret letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham’s agents.
  • Meantime, over in Wallachia, or what would later become Romania with some of Hungary thrown in… meet Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. Not actually a monarch, but a Voivode, a sort of chief prince of the realm appointed by the boyars, or noble families. Although Vlad frankly despised his boyars (*tch* these nobles, always behaving like you owe them your throne or something) and by all accounts had a nastily fatal habit of letting them know it, he actually served three terms as Voivode; the sketch is set during the second, spanning approx. 1456-72.
  • Yep, turns out that even while his Turkish, German and Russian enemies were (understandably) busy spreading propaganda about his methods, in his own country Vlad was being, and thereafter continued to be, hailed as a conquering hero for holding them off — a dauntless David facing down the Goliath-esque Ottoman Empire.
  • If the assertions by Romanian historians found not only in this short but memorable overview of his career (warning! probably not safe to read while eating) but elsewhere are correct, Dracula is to this day revered in his homeland as a law-and-order legend, a man of the people whose knack of dealing, erm, sternly not only with outside threats but with corrupt nobles and criminals in his own realm is considered positively noble. All those stories of his wildly inventive cruelty, his fans insist, were exaggerated by his enemies. And–historical reality being the total buzzkill that it is–it’s probable they’re at least partly correct.
  • Because I know at least some of you are dying of curiosity: Ivan the Terrible, indeed the owner of some fairly impressive eyebrows, and an even more legendary temper. Like Vlad, though, he had a softer side; he was a talented muscian and patron of the arts, has been described as ‘devout’, and just generally might’ve been remembered mainly as a shrewd and effective politician save for that whole thing with the flying into rages and beating people… but still, there’s a small-but-vocal campaign out there to have him canonised as a saint.
 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S03E09

To win at war, make crops grow more, to cure our kids when ill,
The sun to shine, this song to rhyme, more victims we must kill!

Wondering where the Aztecs got to? Well, wonder no more. As it turns out, human sacrifice is a lot more entertaining than llama ditto… how to tell if you’re a serious HH fan: if that last sentence made sense.

In this episode:

Song: Aztec Priests’ Song (Ain’t Stayin’ Alive) — Larry, Mat and Jim as the terrible tooth-licking trio (Parody of: the Bee Gees, feat. Stayin’ Alive)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Pet Shop — Victorian (“I have never been so insulted by a woman with a frog!”)

Computer Game: Splat That Rat! — …Or at least, as much of the game as they can get through before the host objects on, erm, rodentarian grounds. (“A line of decency has definitely been crossed here! If there’s any more like this I’ll…I’ll be writing a stiff letter of complaint to the Daily Mail! You know I will! You know I will!“)

Come Dine With Me — Medieval (“Next guest is Derek, who commits the ultimate social faux pas of dying of the plague the moment he steps through the door!”)

One-offs:

Vicious Vikings

Author of His Fate — Monks-vs-Vikings, interlude: A literate brother convinces some decidedly illiterate raiders to spare him so he can record their ‘heroic exploits’ for all time… unfortunately, the reviews are savage. Literally.

We Sell Any Monk — “From our new market city of Dublin!… Fat ones! Slim ones! Bright ones! Dim ones!… One to read! One to write! Not much good in a fight!”

Vile Victorians

The Victorian Traffic Report — Much like medieval ditto, Victorian streets were also awash in poo. Because horses. Next!

Terrible Tudors

The Price of Confusion — A savvy seaside merchant confirms to a naive traveler what the rest of the world has suspected for quite some time now: pre-decimal British coinage was pretty much made up as they went along.

Silly Tudor Laws — Another mini-Blackadder episode, in which a nobleman is forced by Elizabeth I to first wear a woolly hat, then remove his sword-impeding cloak, and then his royals-only purple doublet… leading inevitably to: Cecil, there appears to be a naked man in our throne room….”

Angry Aztecs

Aztec Gardener’s World: Live From Ancient Mexico — “So to make an irrigation system we’re going to need a bow, and plenty of arrows… some red paint… and of course, a person to sacrifice. An enemy warrior is best — but an annoying assistant will do.”

Aztec Whodunnit-O — “This year’s must-have board game! With thousands of sacrifices to the sun god every week, it’s a game you can play again and again!”

Frightful First World War

Inspecting the Troops — When soldiers are being slaughtered by the millions year after year, eventually the recruiting offices stop being so picky about stuff like, say, age and/or gender…

Rotten Romans

Tabellarii Messenger — Rome’s Premier Mobile Slave Service! (“Always there for you! And at the bargain price of a little food and water a month, you can enjoy unlimited messages!”)

Got to Be Smuggling Something — Trying to get unauthorized weapons into Rome: as it turns out, not something you want to attempt around lunchtime. “Wait, wait! It’s not really a sausage, it’s more of a frankfurter!”

Field Notes:

  • And thus we have arrived at possibly the most unique — and uniquely polarizing — tune in HH history… also, of course, some very chuckle-worthy sketches, but still. In a series full of “brilliant song, and oh yeah, there was also an episode…” moments, the One With the Psychedelic Disco Aztecs stands out because, frankly, once you’ve seen that video the entire rest of the show feels anti-climactic for awhile.
  • Personally, I unreservedly love the whole production and squeeze it and call it George. Because it has the absolute courage of its comedy convictions, because within them it is brilliantly intuitive — hey, a cruelly decadent culture fascinated with shiny things, what other genre you gonna call? — and deftly funny with it…
  • …and because, well, Larry. It’s his first and thus far only musical lead, and anyone even remotely familiar with the show knows by now how Rickard reacts to this kind of major chance, yes? Right, exactly that, complete even to the smouldering gaze at the end. And — although technical details don’t really apply — impressively not-vocally-cringey to boot. Of course it also hits square right in Mat’s performance zone and, rather more startlingly, Jim’s vocal ditto — those high notes are impressive, even for him.
  • So yes, in comedy terms at least there is something irresistibly over-the-top ridiculous about a culture in which even a placid garden show requires WATERING THE SOIL WITH THE BLOOD OF INNOCENTS. Especially when same is formatted as one of Ben & Jim’s classic demo sketches. The central gag may be contrived — and it might just be worth noting, the ominous Red Spot ends up nowhere near the annoying assistant’s heart — but watching these two together behind a table is never not worth it.
  • I must also take a moment to display heartfelt gratitude to the makeup team, who evidently have done some research between series, let’s just leave it at that. I’m not completely sure how authentic the replacement is — let alone how they got it up Ben’s nose — only that it can’t possibly be mistaken for blackface, and thus I am one happy North American reviewer.
  • Of course, the spectacle of Willbond the wannabe Hispanic will never not be hilariously awkward anyway; I’m trying to picture a scenario in which eager young Benjamin W. envisions a career that will involve wearing that costume, and I’m failing miserably. Ditto, come to think of it, for Jim and that Dutch-bob wig.
  • Anyway, Ben recoups in the Tudor money bit; casting directors looking for the villain of their next implausible action movie take note, Willbond has that ‘looking suave while rattling off a pointlessly complex monologue’ thingy nailed. (Bonus costuming advice: he looks really good in dove grey. You’re welcome.) At the very least, when he inevitably gets his BAFTA nom, this and the ‘Causes of WWI’ are totally the clips they should be playing.
  • Meantime, the Aztec board game bit likewise does a nicely clever job of getting the whole wildly mundane “if this is Thursday, it must be time to rip the hearts out of more hapless prisoners” thing across, with for the non-UK viewer bonus insight into what marketers think the average suburban British family considers quality time with each other. This turns out to be rather interestingly tea-and-crumpet-stereotype free, although… uh, so you lot really do call it ‘Cluedo’? You don’t think the extra syllable might be just a weensy bit unnecessary? No? Right, just checking.
  • Speaking of unnecessary…  The 2nd Baron Rothschild is back, everybody! He and his menagerie have worked their way up patiently through three series, from a mention, to an animation, and now here he is in the flesh! Even the Wiki episode list has noticed this by now! Let’s give him a great big hand!…
  • …yeah, I don’t get it either. At all. My best guess — which I tend to run in my head anyway as a more amusing alternative to one more HPet Shop bit — involves somebody back in the BBC boardroom with a childhood nostalgia for zebras, and the production crew’s increasingly desperate attempts to simoultaneously keep both him and the audience happy: “Look, Ben, we’ll put you in the extra-shiny suit, and you do the Henry VIII voice, OK? And Larry, you distract from the side… What? I don’t know, um, something with side-whiskers.”
  • Or we could just go with the much more artistically appealing ‘satirical comment on relative human/animal empathy’ angle, seeing as how this sacrifice-n-slavery-filled episode also features Rattus finally boiling right over at the treatment of his ancestors. I am at any rate guessing this would not be a good time to mention a) that he’s even more adorable when he’s bristling with rage and b) all those other skits in which rodents bought it without a squeak from him.
  • About that ‘We Sell Any Monk’ sketch… I gather it was one of the big fan-favourite hits from S3, so the reason I’m sitting here totally baffled is because it’s clearly parodying something UK-centric, yes? Involving your version of entrepreneurs overcompensating for low commercial budgets by being as insanely annoying as humans didn’t even think was possible? If so, I understand, and even sympathise… but I also hate those commercials so much that even Jim (in hilariously denim-y armour) can’t compensate.
  • Oh, goody, new and exciting ways to demonstrate how cheap life was in the WWI trenches! And hey, just for fun, let’s ensure that Mat’s uniform is two sizes too big for him, that won’t help the viewer’s increasingly morbid sense of doom at all!
  • Still, it is a pretty clever plot twist, as these sketches go. Also, it features the return of Major-General Chucklehead, which totally works like a little ray of sunshine cutting through the gloom. I’m honestly starting to enjoy Simon more when he’s doing restrained than full-on crazy; much more engagingly unpredictable.
  • So I’m thinking anyone still concerned with how familiar the HH crew is with the world of online fandom in general and fanfic in particular may want to re-watch this latest monks-vs-Vikings bit — “Write about my biceps!”, featuring both Cosplay Warrior Ben and Nordic Larry — because the answer is at least possibly, not to say amusingly, ‘very’. I suppose the parody target could be considered generic romance novels… but that raises a whole new set of hilarious side questions re: sheer authenticity.
  • On a not-exactly-brighter-but-definitely-less-fraught note, while the Medieval Come Dine With Me covers too much familiar ground to be really memorable, I do cherish the whole zany-Perrault-parody vibe of Martha’s ‘Lady Cranky-Portcullis’ , especially as pointed out the snarkily aware narrator. Sort of Shrek-esque, only refreshingly free of the stench of commercial desperation.
  • Like, for instance, Elizabeth I. Great sketch, the Silly Tudor Laws, not least for what’s also hands-down the ultimate best use of Ben’s smug ever. (The little tiny “Ta-dah!” — that there is comic skills, people.)  The whole thing basically runs on everyone’s personality come to that, up to and including Saucer-Eyed Larry the guard; because when you give it a second’s thought, it makes no sense whatsoever that they wouldn’t get it all over — hat, cloak, purple — in one shot.
  • I would however forgive much more for the increasingly rare glimpse of Mat being purely Mat. Pity having to cover that hair with the woolly hat, but the “I thought it was rather fetching”… yeah, nice to have you back, Baynton. (Incidentally, the the outtake from the ‘naked’ scene, as included on the DVD, makes a priceless bonus treat: “Now, Mat, if you’ll just put your fingers back on your nipples…” “Well, THAT’S a direction I never thought I’d hear.”)
  • Apropos of which… the Tabellari messenger service bit… sure, why not? Victor Borge’s ‘animated punctuation’ routine could stand the updating — particularly, the addition of emoticons. May I just suggest that Mat has now officially more than earned back whatever that miming course particularly was worth, and probably the rest of the clown school cost on that one “Heart attack! Sad face!” bit. I especially enjoy the little incoming signal… oh, and Ben the ‘upgrade’. Yep, fangirls — they know. Oh, yes, they know.
  • Wow, quite the little Bag of Weapons Holding our sad-sack sausage smuggler has there. Exactly how big is this invasion force, anyway? And why on earth isn’t Confidentius there pulling this off himself? Yes, overthinking again, I know, but I can’t help it, Mat does such an unsettlingly effective job of playing vulnerable that it forces the viewer to deal with it in reality. This is one of many reasons I’m seriously intrigued by his new series, The Wrong Mans.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, the Aztecs — or as they preferred it, the ‘Mexica’ — and their unique need to keep the blood flowing (human, animal, bird, probably the odd iguana, they really weren’t picky) lest the forces of darkness overpower the sun ….no, seriously. I remain slightly disappointed that the show has never expanded further on the full-blown telenovela, only even less plausible, that was at one point the Mexican national religion.
  • While the nature and number of sacrifices is (of course) disputed, with more recent revisionist scholarship moving the numbers down from mindboggling to merely horrifying, no-one disputes that the Aztecs’ need to placate the bloodthirsty gods they envisioned as controlling the universe influenced nearly every aspect of their lives. I mean, that sun kept disappearing behind sissy little clouds and stuff! Clearly, it needed all the help it could get.
  • Enter the xochiyaoyotl, or ‘flower wars’: a sort of low-level ongoing series of skirmishes fought with surrounding tribes that had the dual purpose of sharpening up Aztec youths for real battle and… well, let us just say that all those POWs had to come from somewhere. Can’t you just imagine the Aztecs’ innocently wounded surprise, when the Spanish conquistadores did finally show up to vanquish them, that these same surrounding tribes didn’t instantly come running to offer help and succour?
  • Although in real life the victims were actually accorded great honour, to the point where, believe it or not, some of them went to the, uh, ripping block quite willingly. Ritual cardiac amputation would at least mean a relatively quick and painless death, and more to the point, ensure you were immediately resurrected to join the good fight against those aforementioned forces of darkness. Basically, Aztecs believed in a heaven consisting entirely of being leveled up to the most awesome World of Warcraft quest ever.
  • Oh, and incidentally, blood is actually a great fertilizer that’s still in use today — all those proteins and minerals and nitrogen and whatnot are just the stuff to make the garden grow… and, as it turns out, other animals, too. Just try not to think about that, next time you’re enjoying a yummy Big Mac, ‘k?
  • Just for the record (358th in an ongoing series): William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he was already roughly Ben’s age by the time he and the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth first made contact, and by this point… yeah, OK, I’ll stop being a killjoy now.
  • At least they got the attitude more or less correct; Cecil was generally distrustful of the handsome male courtiers his boss liked to surround herself with, and a little overt humiliation wouldn’t have come amiss… except that he totally would’ve foreseen the nudity thing & planned accordingly. Dude was a political badass.
  • …unfortunately, this meant that neither he nor ‘Sir William’ were actually bound by the woolly-hat law. After all, in Tudor reality — and as you may have gathered by how stupid they look with all the satin and whatnot onscreen — wool caps were entirely the trademark of the working-class, and thus, as per this actual page on Tudor Hats: …in 1571 a law was passed which ordered everyone over the age of six to wear a woollen cap on Sundays and on holidays in order to help England’s wool trade. Needless to say royalty and the nobility were excused from obeying this law.
 
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Posted by on May 19, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S03E06

Can you imagine it, I’m the last Plantagenet…

The show takes a midseason break from being clever and innovative, but still comes up with a plausibly charming episode. Of course, it helps a lot if you’ve got Richard III in reserve…

In this episode:

Song: The Truth About Richard III — Jim as the much-maligned monarch, Lawry as Thomas More & Mat as Shakespeare

Recurring sketches:

Historical Paramedics — Tudors (“Geoff! I forgot to feed the spiders!” “Are you insane in ye brain? We can’t feed her dead buttered spiders, that’s just crazy!”)

Horrible Points of View — Celtic (“So let’s just see what’s in the bulging mailbAUGGHHH it’s a severed Roman head!... Why would you do that?!”)

Historical Pet Shop — Celtic (“No, no, dogs don’t talk, luv! …But if you kill ’em, an’ eat their flesh, they will talk to you in a vision…” “OK, go on then, out you go! Walkies!”)

Bob Hale — War of the Roses Report (“Luckily, the Archbishop of Canterbury steps in and sorts the whole thing out by inventing Love Day: when the Lancastrians and the Yorkists march through the High Street holding hands. And I’m not even making that bit up.”)

Come Dine With Me — Aztec Days of Maize and Beans (“…where we just eat… maize and beans. For nineteen days. It’s to celebrate the end of the dry season.” “Yeah, and the beginning of the windy one!”)

Shouty Man — New! Multi-Purpose String (“Why not use it to make a string bag? It’s up to 50% better at carrying stuff than your bare hands!”)

Stupid Deaths — Maria, Countess of Coventry (covered her acne with a white lead foundation, which led to more blemishes, which required slathering more toxic stuff on her face… “You’re as thick as your makeup! Ooh, if looks could kill — and they did!”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

Henry VIII’s Tudor Diet Plan — “Just seven hours of feasting a day, and you too could have a body to die for!”

Savage Stone Age

When Farming Was Invented — You know that one famous Calvin & Hobbes strip on how milk was discovered? This right here would be the live-action sequel. “…I quite like the sound of being a faaahhma, with a hooom…”

Gorgeous Georgians

The Death of Nelson — “It’s just that if he was saying that this was his destiny, and you do kiss him… then forevermore, people will think that Britain’s greatest naval hero on his deathbed asked his right-hand man for a bit of a snog.”

So We Pickled ‘im — “What did you do with Nelson’s body, by the way?” “Oh, we wanted to make sure it was preserved… so we put it in the barrel of brandy.” “Pphlbbbt!”

Field Notes:

  • Of course, it would have to happen to Richard III, of all HH characters. Only Jim could give a performance as a pathetic victim of fate so completely amazing that fate had to resort to bunging one of the most important historical discoveries of the 21st century to date under a random car park, just to regain the upper hand.
  • And even then, it didn’t succeed entirely — or even really seriously. Despite giving some of the most elegant songwriting in HH musical history a few scuff marks (dealt with in detail below), this remains a tiny perfect musical comedy masterpiece, a transcendent triumph of… well, yeah, Howick-ness, really. Aided and abetted by the happiest combination of lush production values and cleverly snarky staging since the King of Bling hip-hopped his way through Hampton Court.
  • (In particular, whomever came up with those little kindergarten drawings under ‘Good With Kids’– do you by any chance have a Kickstarter? Cos if so, I just became your biggest backer. For whatever, I don’t care.)
  • It joins a remarkable series of definitive musical performances that have thus far included Dick Turpin, William Wallace and Cleopatra (…and will, probably, include an Aztec priest). Just how precisely Jim can manipulate sentiment, especially in song, isn’t exactly a deep secret at this point — although it’s worth noting that in terms of creating plausible, nuanced characters, starting from pure adorableness is even more challenging than from George IV’s whining. And more interesting, in a way, because the implications run much deeper.
  • Thus, this version of Richard III is teddy-bear cuddly — the actual fur cloak is another brilliant touch — and sympathetic, largely because he’s evidently found a decent anger-management therapist or at least ditched the badger fixation. But because it’s Jim, there’s always a hint of self-interest lurking around the edges; the possibility that he’s at best exaggerating, or at worst cynically manipulating the facts in his favour. So, y’know, if you still want to enjoy the song totally as-is, that works too… just not in the way you may have intended.
  • So yeah, the show obviously now knows its strengths intimately enough to basically take an episode off from being innovative and/or whacky and still be… oh, wait, hold the whackiness train, I forgot there was a Historical Paramedics bit. Aka, at this point, the youngest troupe members’ personal comedy jungle gym (“It sounds like she’s suffering from… SICKNESS!” “I concur!”). Which is… sort of disappointing, in a way.
  • They’ve clearly by now been fully convinced of their own preciousness — probably couldn’t help it really; if the trick to keeping a straight face is biting the inside of your cheek the entire crew on these must’ve terrified their dentists. While it’s never a bad thing that Jim and Mat are enjoying themselves, the demented drollery of the HP sketches particularly depends on how perfectly — Pythonically? — a deadpan they can achieve.
  • On the other hand, they don’t take the farming sketch seriously at all — well, Mat seems to be pretty into the spear thing, also his Ali G-except-white schtick, but that’s about it — and it’s one of the most engagingly funny non-HP things they’ve ever done together. The anarchic innocence of Calvin & Hobbes being, now that I come to think of it, a perfect metaphor for their professional relationship, up to and including the drawing rude stuff on Martha’s scripts. Besides, Mat and mouthfuls of strange foods is becoming almost as amusing a minor fetish as Larry being covered in ick.
  • *ahem* As I was saying, this ep is mostly about the more gentle — oh, sorry, sorry, I forgot, there was also Henry VIII. Although they did manage to hold off on the fat jokes for a full two-and-a-half series, gotta give them that. Ironically enough, though, what Harry’s actually describing here is his original middle-aged S1 incarnation. While I’m not going to deny that those fetching strawberry-blond curls are an improvement in some important respects, it’s at the expense of reality.
  • So anyway, this ep more-or-less covers the gentle charms of the familiar… oh, right, and Historical Points of View. Ehhhh… close enough, inasmuch as ‘familiar’ in this show totally covers ‘hot guy compulsively chatting to severed heads whilst taking Simon Cowell-related potshots’. The overstuffed parlour effect complete with floral arrangement over the mantel is a bit unusual, though — sort of weirdly over-precious… wait, this is Baynton, that was probably the point. Which would also handily explain the chatting-to-severed-heads thingy.
  • More seriously, this is my favourite of the new (non-Masterchef) S3 recurring bits, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but does take in how nicely Mat manages to capture the parody subject. I have no idea what that is in particular, but anyone who’s ever dealt with public broadcasting anywhere recognizes the validity of Ombudsman on the Verge as a comedy concept. That expression on ‘poetry’ perfectly captures it — and incidentally provides some insight into how hard our Mathew must otherwise have to work to keep his face in ‘blandly nice young man’ mode.
  • Oh, and bonus lesson in how to tell your reviewer is Canadian: I’m looking at Larry the Celtic Poet, squatting by his fireside, imbued with all the dignity of his tradition, and I’m thinking “that is totally Red Green’s ancient ancestor!”… Yeah, you may just want to go with that one.
  • Come to think of it, between this sketch and the HPet Shop, I think I might be starting to see a pattern — maybe these quietly desperate types are the only ones who can see the historical intrusions into their world, or just attract them somehow, thus driving them to the levels of eccentricity we heartlessly chuckle at here? Boy, are you lot lucky I’m too busy to write fanfic on that theme.
  • While I’m on, must remember this time to give props to the ever-sadistically-creative makeup team. I’m almost more impressed with their making Martha look that frumpy than I am the wasp stings.
  • There is a slight improvement in the Pet Shop giggle quotient here, partly because the historical narrative is becoming more coherent, but mostly cos I do love me some big stupid Celtic Ben — here with bonus new and ridiculous accent, yet…. uh, with apologies to anyone whose accent it may actually be. That’s the lovely thing about Ben’s roles: even though I may have little-to-no idea what the voice he’s using is or why, I can always be sure it’s accurate. Does wonders for cross-cultural understanding.
  • OK, fine, so most of the gently charming stuff is provided by the longtime regulars. Speaking of both that and coherent narratives, I must give all props to Bobsy Hale. Though for once too busy explaining the mass of shifting and conflicting loyalties that is the English Civil War to bother with the usual outlandish distractions, he still manages to deftly extract the funny, while also still being approximately 237 years old. That scenario right there is about as close as I will ever come to understanding where the I *HEART* HALE crowd is coming from.
  • Death is also deep into the amusingly predictable, exchanging beauty tips with skeletons to no-one’s surprise but quite a lot of enjoyment. You can just see him with a copy of Cosmopolitan open on that desk, can’t you? Meantime, Shouty Man hawks string, of all the oddly innocuous things, and thanks to a Simon in full sweetly earnest straight man mode (having to my relief put the brakes on the manic hopping and grunting from his last caveman act), does a hilariously thorough job of it.
  • Ohai Aztecs!…Wait, isn’t that the Inca cartoon intro lady? Awww, show, and you were doing so well, too. Ah well, still nice to see them integrated into mainstream sketches — here primarily because the writers always tend to interpret ‘kid-friendly content’ as ‘providing as many fart jokes as possible’, but hey, they’ve got the real CDWM narrator in to make it bearable to the grownups, and well done him for taking it on. Just personally, though, I’d like to hear more about that prehistoric super-whitening laundry detergent the Aztecs evidently had access to…
  • There’s more gentle goodness in the Death of Nelson, another little mini-sitcom which I’m assuming was intended as a satire on all those stalwartly romantic Patrick O’Brien-esque things where Russell Crowe’s the captain and the music is sweeping and whatnot. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it works so perfectly — and the gags are otherwise so pointless — I’m going to assume it was anyway.
  • Despite a certain rather conspicuously missing eyepatch, everybody makes a lovely authentic job of blending into the milieu. Especially Mat, whose character clearly benefits from all that practice he’s been getting lately at being, well, normal.
  • Also, Rattus’ teeny, inexplicably clean hankie… squeee! Also also, the fainting fit after ‘coming over all brainy’… yeah, you know the drill. Quoting the rat extensively is a bit beyond my purview here (there aren’t so many ways for an adult reviewing a children’s show to maintain dignity that I can afford to ignore any) but rest assured he’s being very quotable indeed lately. Evidently the puppeteers were given the same freedom to please themselves in S3 as the rest of the team.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so as the entire world and its uncle is aware by now, the real Richard III has been found where he was hastily buried: under a random car park in Leicester — well, it probably wasn’t one back then, but you get the idea. Thus filling in one of the most important gaps in English royal history and, according to the otherwise excellent (largely because Farnaby-anchored) documentary King in the Car Park, making grown women cry. And probably go home to write passionate fanfiction. I foresee several new additions to the time-travelling romance genre in the near future.
  • Anyway, the day the discovery was confirmed, the question on everyone else’s lips was of course ‘Hey, wait, does this mean Horrible Histories lied to us?’ Because the media, paragon of journalistic subtlety that it totally isn’t, was reporting gleefully that he was hunchbacked after all! This is because the media is composed of the same average laypeople who don’t realise that hunchback is a distinct spinal condition, and besides spending a few moments Googling would’ve severely cut into their poignant-quote-composing time.
  • So yes, hunchback, or kyphosis, is in fact a distinct spinal condition, and not in fact the one Richard had. Forensic scientists studying the bones describe him instead as suffering from the much more common scoliosis, in which the spine is twisted S-fashion, not hunched. Meaning that no, Richard didn’t actually walk his full height, and probably would also have had had at least a slight limp, as the condition commonly hitches one hip higher than the other. It also correspondingly hitches one shoulder higher than the other, which it’s easy to imagine opportunistic enemies exaggerating into a monstrous hump.
  • Mind you, this was an era in which any physical deformity was of course a mark of God’s displeasure, if not actually a sign that the Devil had got there first (as late as the nineteenth century, forensic researchers would be clinging to the theory that outward appearance can indicate personality traits). So, a little exaggeration here and there… throw in a withered arm just to make it clear that this was a man in whom the milk of human kindness had literally dried up… and hey presto! A propaganda monster for the ages.
  • Lost in all of this, of course, is the question of whether our Richard actually did anything monstrous. Even granted that he wasn’t actually the medieval equivalent of Lex Luthor, the mystery of the princes still features him as a deservedly prime suspect — although an even better case can be made for the incoming Tudor King, Henry VII. (The standard one features as the plot of Josephine Tey’s brilliant, if retroactively flawed, Daughter of Time.) Put very simply, Henry undoubtedly had a lot more to fear from a pair of Lancastrian spawn running around loose.
  • Most likely, Richard really was a nice guy… but as the HH version admits himself a pragmatic one, in pragmatic times. Based on what I’ve read, probably overall a bit more difficult to cast as a romantic hero than his ardent supporters would like to admit.
  • For a full discussion of the realities of the Tudor diet, see under S01E10. As a preview: Henry (whose weight gain in later life was exacerbated by injury-induced immobility) actually ate quite a few vegetables — and was known to have grown artichokes in the Hampton Court gardens. The show itself seems to have felt the over-the-top ‘VEGETABLES ARE FOR POOR PEOPLE!’ schtick needed some apologia; Rattus more accurately refers to the issue as involving uncooked veggies — or even more accurately, with veggies prepared without spices or other condiments.
  • In a former life as a book reviewer yours truly had the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the Tudor diet, including the sugar work — the same discipline that the Food Network has discovered makes for such daring and dazzling TV, and back then the one area in which English cooks seriously impressed their Continental counterparts. Overall, the reality of Tudor cuisine was much more imntriguing than the ‘random hunks of meat’ cliches, and I still highly recommend Peter Brears’ book.
  • Tudor medicine, on the other hand… yeah, I guess we’re still talking intriguing, as long as we’re also not eating at the time. As this hilariously candid children’s museum notes, spiders (or ‘young frogs’) were indeed used back then as a cure for asthma — the butter was to help them slip down easier, natch.
  • The same page describes a whole lot of wildly entertaining stuff the HP sketch inexplicably missed, including the cures for gout (“boil a red-haired dog in oil, add worms and the marrow from pig bones. Rub the mixture in”) and my favourite, liver complaint (“drink a pint of ale every morning for a week – with nine head-lice drowned in it”)
  • OK, yes, Nelson in all probability did ask Hardy to kiss him; according to this rather delightful online Phrase Finder, there are fully three eyewitness accounts testifying not only that he said it but that Hardy did in fact give him a little peck on the cheek, no doubt nobly hiding his heartbreak behind his brass buttons the while, sweeping music swelling in the background.
  • More seriously, the same site notes that …The later story, that Nelson’s last words were “Kismet [fate] Hardy”, aren’t supported by any contemporary evidence. In fact, ‘kismet’ isn’t recorded as being in use in English to mean fate until as late as 1830, a quarter of a century after Nelson died. Essentially, later historians totally made the whole thing up because ewwww, guys kissing! Yes, apparently later historians had roughly the same ability to handle homoeroticism  as Lucy did Snoopy’s dog germs.
  • Actually, of course, same-sex smooching was one of the mundane realities of the 18th centuries, an era during which even the most platonic friendships reached a pitch that routinely gets perfectly innocent period authors — like Jane Austen — accused of lavishly erotic innuendo on the modern Internet. It’s all rather silly, really.
 
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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Series Three

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

S02E01

General, I said a weapon like a pike! I didn’t literally mean a pike, ‘pike’ was just an example! Honestly, if I told you to go and jump off a cliff, would you?!

…he’s gone to jump off a cliff.

Newly professional-looking credit sequence, newly sharp and sophisticated writing, makeup and costuming budgets obviously increased, camerawork much more assured, parodies much more pointed, Stupid Deaths upgraded, the Incredible Incas introduced, Larry and Martha now part of the leading troupe, Rattus’ hole gets a makeover… as, of course, does the music. Even the gross has been bumped up to Shakespearian heights.

Welcome to Horrible Histories.

In this episode:

Song: The Viking Song (Literally) — The ancestors of Spinal Tap: Mat (lead vocals), Ben (lead axe), Larry (bass axe) and Jim (drums)

Recurring sketches:

Come Dine With Me — Roman Emperor Elagabalus (“Huhuhuhuhuh! I’m so random!”)

Shouty Man — New! Incan Hole Childcare System (“With the unique dig-anywhere design, you can take your hole wherever you go!”)

Stupid Deaths — Bobby Leach (fearless daredevil who.. slipped on a bit of orange peel on a New Zealand sidewalk & died of gangrene)

Historical Mastermind — William Shakespeare (Great. No, really. Future argumentative revisionist: “How could a mere uneducated peasant write works of such timeless genius?” Future me: “Knock-knock!”)

Computer Game — Operation Defend Britain!… somehow. (“And just what do you think you’re doing? I’m a real nun!”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

Portrait of a Furious Queen — Being a raving beauty was way easier back when “PR firm” meant “guy with a paintbrush who doesn’t breathe unless I say so.”

Incredible Incas

Incan ShamPee — “Available in all full bladders. Bucket not included.”

Vile Victorians

Welcome to Badminton House — Or as I like to think of it, Inexplicable Moments in Mild Victorian Eccentricity, Vol.3…

Great Eccentrics of the Victorian Era: The 2nd Baron Rothschild (animated) — …Vol.4… (Also vols.1, 5, 6…)

Slimy Stuarts

Fawkes’ 13 (movie trailer) — “Because you’re a Catholic, and I’m a Catholic, and the King hates Catholics! He seems to think we’re always plotting something.”

The Irony is Deafening — Royal press restrictions: one giant step backward for freedom of expression, but apparently one giant step forward for screwball comedy.

Woeful Second World War

Arming the Home Guard — Awwww, they should’ve let them keep the pikes. The grandkids would’ve paid a lot more attention to the stories later, believe you me. Especially if they also involved accidentally sticking them into nuns.

Durham Accident Book — The local (and obviously pike-free) HG division can’t even save themselves from splinters. Bonus: attempts at the accent almost as painful-sounding as the actual injuries.

Vicious Vikings

Sat Rav — Quoth the navigational device: Nevermore! (Yes, I have been saving that one. Shut up.)

Field Notes:

  • Right, the whole figuring out what worked thing, apparently it went pretty well; inasmuch as it seems to have consisted more-or-less entirely of ‘They not only bought it, they gave us more money for it! FREEEEEDOMMMMM!!” Followed by several minutes’ Dance of Joy around the boardroom, or wherever it is the creative types are given their mandates.Which is to say, the HH we all know and love — ie. a slightly more conscientious Blackadder — makes a remarkably complete and self-assured debut, to the point where said debut seriously does exude an air of almost giddy relief.
  • Thus it’s fitting that it all leads off with our first look at Mat Baynton 2.0: alternately mad, bad, and… well, not ‘dangerous’ exactly. Only that his day job just couldn’t continue to ignore the fey ambiguity behind the boyish charm. Esp. given he was just coming off a supporting stint on the notorious Horne & Corden (as literally the only aspect of it I could find described anywhere as ‘funny’) So… they decided to exploit it, instead. Then, presumably, sat back with champagne to watch as their cross-demographic horizons abruptly exploded.
  • In possibly related news, to kick off this bright new era in HH musical credibility, Mat and Larry have written… a note-perfect 80’s hair metal power ballad. The mind boggles to consider how this cross-cultural intimacy might’ve come about. The traditional way involves hanging out in a pickup truck in a Midwestern mall parking lot, drinking Old Milwaukee and playing air guitar so that it shows off your tattoos to best advantage (in case any actual girls should wander by, natch). I would scoff at this explanation, except that I have seen an actual pic of youthful Larry. Also, adult Mat’s patent inability to keep a straight face past the second chorus.
  • It may also be a factor that our Laurence just happens to have colouring very reminiscent of an *ahem* authentic ancient Norse warrior. Including unusually bright blue, deep-set eyes that, if other self-posted pics are any indication, he has long since decided are his best feature. He may be correct, at that. At any rate he is now entirely redefining ‘make the most of your chances’ even by his standards (as set during the earlier “sowsages” scene in the Elagabalus sketch). At one point during the choruses even Jim ‘Sharp Stone’ Howick is glancing over at him like “Whoa, man, family show!”
  • All snark aside, it’s just amazingly nice to have the music back. Yeah, it was mostly a no-brainer once the media picked up “Born 2 Rule” and ran with it as the cool, innovative bit; but if Series One has any meaningful legacy at all, let it be the demonstration not only that the media was exactly right, but what the alternative would be. Going forward, not all of the parody songs will be as good (and even fewer will be as sophisticated) as this one – but they will all be songs, as supervised by adults with an understanding of both music and comedy, as opposed to merely an earnest desire to entertain children.
  • It’s the most prominent of generally reassuring signs re: straight priorities. At least, this is how I reassure myself that I’m not entirely nuts to keep going with this project: the show is also actually invested in making me almost embarrassingly glad to see a time-travelling conman with no indoor voice and a Grim Reaper who’s patterning his mid-afterlife crisis as a perpetual X-Factor audition, just because he can.
  • Yes, they’re brilliant satirical concepts and all, but there’s something more intangibly satisfying happening here. When asked about the inspiration for the similarly beloved-by-all-ages Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones once said “We didn’t make them for children, and we didn’t make them for adults. We made them for ourselves.” There is a perpetual feeling, when watching HH from this point onwards, that both writers and performers are doing exactly the same thing.
  • While I’m on, yay! for the return not only of Ben the goofy military gallant — he can wear a uniform, and a uniformed character, in much the same way Larry wears Viking getup — but also the gaming hero. I have always found the show’s retro take on video games highly amusing, inept graphics and all — esp. given the real possibility, based on the behind-the-scenes vid, that Ben at least may not quite realise it is retro. I particularly like the little “ow – ow – ow…”
  • Meanwhile, Martha is likewise making the most of her promotion. New!Liz I is a bit stereotypically broad for my tastes (although Jim’s Walsingham is surprisingly effective; see below). I do however enjoy watching her showing off all her considerable poise, charm and comic timing — and couple-chemistry with Jim — in the otherwise fully pointless badminton sketch. OK, that and awwww Jim having so much fun punting into the breakables! My Howick plushie may need to come with kung-fu kick action.
  • Simon, on the other hand, was off working on the Boosh quasi-spinoff movie Bunny and the Bull for much of this series’ filming, so now’s the time to get used to his understudy, Lawry Lewin: aka the world’s only bipedal stick insect. As you can imagine, the transition will be a little fraught. Now’s also the time to confess it, I suppose: what with missing ol’ Dandelion Head badly, and constantly being mildly irritated by his replacement’s take – ie., just as neurotic but not nearly as happy about it — I never did warm to our Lawry.
  • This is not to say there aren’t times when that same style actually works on its own (as per the effete and earless Stuart author here, for instance). I honestly admire him besides for being the definition of a dependable supporting player; he’s more than earned his current position as unofficial seventh member of the starring troupe. But anything that requires more active interest in the man will always be beyond my ken. Sorry in advance, surprisingly vocal Lewin fanbase.
  • Still on the subject of tact… or not… look, show, I do understand that you’re British, also a silly comedy. The horrific minefield of racial sensitivities I’m anticipating, re: your decision to populate Mesoamerica with (very) white guys in fake tans, just isn’t there from your core viewers’ POV. I get it. But oooh, trust me, the Shouty Man’s look here is awkward — even if you ignore the entire sociopolitical argument and just go with “Have your makeup staff ever even seen a Hispanic person?”
  • It’s a double shame since otherwise the upmarket f/x debut is triumphant. Most notably, we’ve switched out Elizabeth I for the more traditional Scary Old Clown Makeup Lady, in order that she might display her truly legendary vanity — by describing an ideal self (“Petite-nosed…” etc) that sounds very much like her Series One incarnation. Yeah, should’ve taken that up with your agent, your Majesty.
  • Elsewhere, we’ve established that Mat should not attempt a Northern accent ever again, and that Jim should… well, look, I’m not going to start handing out accent advice to somebody who can switch at will between saucer-eyed adorable and freakin’ Winston Churchill, because I do not wish to mess with anyone who clearly has the power to take over the universe with sheer awesome anytime he wants. Also, the ‘S’okay, it’s just a MASSIVE SPLINTER’ thing was hysterical.
  • Boy it didn’t take long to call for a redo of the Fawkes story, did it? As previously noted, I am totally onboard with a second draft, especially one that makes so much the better use of the material’s huge potential both artistically and – we don’t have Fireworks Night over here, remember — educationally. (Plus giving Larry a chance to demonstrate he can actually settle down and act when required.) Mild weirdness alert when Ben ‘the brains’ gets all of one word to demonstrate it, but hey.
  •  Also raising the ‘intelligent comedy’ bar — well, once you get past the wholly inexplicable part where neither of them visually recognise the problem, ie. the other’s very clearly severed ears — no, really, get past that part. Forcibly if necessary. It pays off in a genuinely hilarious screwball scene which acts as further evidence that somebody in the writing staff also grew up with Abbott & Costello movies… or whatever the British Sunday-morning-TV-filler equivalent was. At any rate, it’s appreciated.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So… Emperor Elagabalus (or, more formally, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus). Easily the most un-nervingly edgy of all HH icons; fear of what happens when sweet young fangirls go to look him up has kept me out of the fanfic archives for some time now. Because in real life (although as usual the sourcing’s a bit sketchy), the ‘random’ teen dude with the charmingly dopey giggle was — if not actually a transgender who offered a reward to any surgeon who could give him a sex change — at least a desperately sexually confused mope who married as many as five times, lavished favors on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers, employed a prototype of whoopie cushions at dinner parties, [don’t ask me how HH missed that one, I’ve no idea] and was reported to have prostituted himself in the imperial palace.
  • On the (faintly) bright side, history agrees that if it existed, the famous powder-room lion was probably old and mostly toothless — remember that they had to get him into the palace in the first place, not to say keep him there, and cattle prods weren’t exactly a thing back then.
  • Another way you can tell this is a whole new series: I’m about to say something nice re: the show’s Tudor fixation. The gratuitously well-researched appearance of Elizabeth I’s security adviser, Francis Walsingham, is actually one of the things that initially piqued my interest in the show beyond ‘Oh, look, they made a cute series out of those snarky books…’ Cos he really was a dour, humourless, all-black-wearing Puritan sort (yes, basically an early version of Oliver Cromwell) who was renowned for being the one courtier who always told our Liz how it was, no more nor less. Which in real life earned him her tremendous respect, but never mind.
  • So yes, Elizabeth, famously vain over her appearance. What the show doesn’t mention is that she also considered her pretty, slender hands one of her best features, hence that weirdly stiff arms-in-front pose in all of the official portraits. On the plus side, she was also the Tudor most willing to get out there and show her actual self to her subjects; her amazing knack with the common people was obviously inherited from similarly-but-more-inexplicably-beloved dad Henry, and one of their firm proofs that she was in fact his daughter.
  • Yes, OK, show, the Baron Rothschild did actually have all those fun animal pets, and I can fully see where they’d amuse the kiddies no end. Still, as Victorian eccentrics go, he wasn’t really even in the top ten. Besides the good Dr. Buckland, eater of royal hearts, check out Friar Park, built by Sir Frank Crisp (and later lovingly restored by some musician guy named George Harrison.)
  • From the Department of Whoa, People Really Do Care About This Stuff! (vol. 324 in a continuing series) comes the guy who created a FAQ section on the show’s Internet Movie Database page for the apparent sole purpose of typing a massive wall o’ text rebuttal to their take on the Home Guard. One can only hope his relatives have managed to keep him from watching Dad’s Army. The truth, as always, seems to have fallen somewhere between the two extremes. Honestly I had a feeling, inasmuch as there’s no way any reasonably healthy males given the chance to play war would be that un-creative re: the homemade weapons. Or maybe we should just be grateful they didn’t have the Internet to search, yet…
 
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Posted by on February 17, 2013 in Series Two

 

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